I knew Tom Cruise played a man name Ray. So when I rang the door bell at the house where Spielberg planned to shoot his adaptation of War of the Worlds, I knew the name on the mail box was there for the film's benefit, one of those subtle details the camera might never pickup - there for motivation or inspiration or some other reason only Steven Spielberg knew for certain.
The name plate said "Ray Ferrier." But a piece of black electrical tape covered over a portion and - being as nosy as I was - I pealed it back to uncover "Mary Ann and" suggesting the character Cruise played still ached for his wife.
Although I had managed access to the Spielberg sound stage elsewhere in the city prior to the filming in Bayonne - where Spielberg had constructed a duplicate exterior and the three floors where the interior scenes would be shot - I could not get more than a brief glance over fences and down alleys of the outdoor set, the string of houses living under the arches of the Bayonne Bridge where many of the exterior shots were filmed.
I arrived after much of the shooting was done, boldly strolling up the path from the street, to stand on the door step hoping security would not chase me away. Some of the sets in the house had already been removed, walls taken down that merely served as hints from the outside of what the interior shots would later show on the other sets. One wall installed in the living room where the holes still showed in the ceiling. Similar holes showed in the ceiling of the bedroom, which was supposed to serve as one of Ray's children's bedrooms.
Workman skipped through the scene without noticing me, presuming I belonged to the crew. I walked through, swinging my camera this way and that until I could find something I could shoot. The set serving as Ray's garage remained unchanged. One staff member said Spielberg had to re-shoot a scene there. So I clicked off as many shots as I could without raising suspicion, and then moved out to the back where Spielberg had turned the world upside down.
The garage was a handyman's heaven with every sort of tool imaginable, many of them hanging above a crowded work bench - though the staff had been careful to also install a variety of other objects to testify to the working class aspects of the home, such as the kid's snow sled standing in the corner. Although the most impressive item in the garage was the 1964-65 Ford Mustang convertible with its white interior and engine compartment completely vacant. The hood leaned against a nearby wall. Piece of the exhaust sat on various flat surfaces.
A small green and white sign was posted among the many items on the back wall calling this "Ray's Garage." Nearly everything, the staff informed me, had been brought to the location on the orders of Spielberg, and every item was to be checked against a list later when they began to disassemble the place. This included every nut and bolt, wall sign and tool, not to mention the impressive press that few home handymen could ever afford to purchase. During these shoots, cameras rolled from every angle, seeking to capture the flavor of the place and the action that transpired here. To exit this room, Cruise or his two kids (if they were allowed to even enter this inner sanctum) used a rear door with a fake wall beyond, designed to correspond with the basement the staff had constructed at the studio on the other side of the city. The stairs just inside the door also had their match at the model house so that action ending here with Cruise leaving could be picked up again later at the more remote location.
In order to create a working class world, Spielberg had do downplay some of the upscale items typical of the middle class, removing pools and plush grass, installing icons of an era out of which I evolved: rusted fences, clothes lines, porch carpets. And for a long moment standing there, I was transported back to my grandfather's home where these images fit our lives. I stood out of time, stirring up the faces and images of a world I had thought long dead. I stood on my family's porch staring out not so much at the arches of the Bayonne Bridge, but at the never ending string of clothes lines and fences through memory had since wandered endlessly. The deck, the houses, the neighborhood had all evolved out of an era that had helped mold me, that haunted working class world that Spielberg's magic had brought back to life, reshaping these old houses into houses that I felt I knew instinctively, from the crab crass to the laundry lines strung with drying clothing. One step and I might have been back on East First Street in my old neighborhood, hearing my neighbors screaming my name for the cherry bomb I had just exploded and whose smoke still lingered over the landscape.
Spielberg had gone through a lot of trouble to transform the more upscale middle class world this part of Bayonne had become, removing swimming pools, installing rusting fences, sweeping away the plush green grass for the crab crass my grandfather had perpetually cursed. Spielberg had even brought out a charcoal grill complete with charcoal, the kind we could never get lighted short of dumping a gallon of gasoline onto it. The neighboring yard had a pack of bicycles, as if waiting for a flock of kids to suddenly appear. I kept expecting a young version of my uncle to pop out of Ray's garage they way they often had out of my grandfather's boat store repair shop, their faces streaked with grease and their knuckles bruised. But, of course, only the parade of staff appeared, part of the dream weavers who helped shape this phony reality, this working class myth out of which Spielberg intended to weave his latest tale.
Although Spielberg had created the interiors at the studio, he needed some exterior shots from the back of the house for the movie. So he ordered the construction of a fake house under Sanchez's deck, complete with a door, windows and a washer/dryer combo just inside. One window had a round hole throughj which Cruise threw a baseball while playing catch with his character's daughter.
The back story of Ray Ferrier interested me more than the science fiction. Cruise played a working class father still hoping his wife would return, struggling to raise his two children while still clinging to his own dreams. He loved his car, and even hung out at the local gas station where he might learn more or get advice when his repairs went wrong. And in the midst of this struggle to survive, aliens arrive, and he must step up to become the most unlikely of heroes.Contact Al Sullivan at email@example.com